Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Ik-Kil cenote, Chichen Itza, Mexico

Sacred Cenotes: Portals to the Maya Underworld

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

The ancient Maya who populated the Yucatan Peninsula in the first millennium AD believed that there were three ways for the living to enter Xibalba, the world of the dead: through deep caves, through competition in the Maya ball game, and through the sacred cenote (sinkholes). It was the cenotes that were most important to the ancient Maya religion, for through these underground caverns came life as well as death.

The Importance of the Cenotes

The Yucatan Peninsula has no natural above-ground rivers and few lakes. It does, however, have a massive network of subterranean caves connected by underground streams and rivers. Many of these caverns are believed to have been formed by meteor strikes associated with the massive meteor that contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs during the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event.

Much of the Peninsula is made up of limestone, which over time erodes and causes the ground to collapse into the water-filled cave below. These are sinkholes or cenotes and it is this source of groundwater that enabled the people of the Yucatan to flourish into the great Maya civilization.

The Maya people in the Yucatan relied on the water of the cenotes. (EnricoPescantini /Adobe Stock)

Why are Cenotes Sacred to the Maya?

The ancient Maya were not ignorant of the vital significance the cenotes played in their survival. The sinkholes thus became places of worship. Indeed, it has been recently discovered that Chichen Itza, the famous Maya pyramid temple, was built upon a massive cenote.

They believed that Kukulkan, the Maya feathered serpent deity, grew up in the underworld cave until finally he became so big that he broke through the surface of the earth with a mighty earthquake and flew to the sun.

To honor Kukulkan, the Maya built the architecturally astounding Pyramid of Kukulkan (called El Castillo by the Spanish conquistadors). The pyramid was built to align with the Maya calendar, a feat that reflects advanced knowledge of mathematics and astrology.

Twice a year, the sun shines just right on the temple so that the steps form the shadow a giant snake. This is Kukulkan who can be seen, over the course of roughly 45 minutes, descending from the heavens, down the bisecting staircase, and into the earth below. There he will rejoin his brethren in Xibalba.

The Pyramid of Kukulkan was built above a giant cenote

The Pyramid of Kukulkan was built above a giant cenote (Daniel Mannerich/CC BY NC ND 2.0)

Lords of the Maya Underworld

The Maya believed that the royal court of Xibalba hosted 12 deities, the Lords of Xibalba. The head of the pantheon is Hun-Came (“One Death”) followed by Vucub-Came (“Seven Death). The remaining ten Lords are demons that each rule over a particular form of human suffering.

According to the Maya mythos, these demons often worked together in pairs. There was Xiquiripat ("Flying Scab") and Cuchumaquic ("Gathered Blood") who worked to poison people’s blood. There was Ahalpuh ("Pus Demon") and Ahalgana ("Jaundice Demon") who made bodies swell and rot. There was Chamiabac ("Bone Staff") and Chamiaholom ("Skull Staff"), who slowly striped the flesh from the dead to turn them into skeletons. There was Ahalmez ("Sweepings Demon") and Ahaltocob ("Stabbing Demon"), who were believed to hide in the unswept areas of a person’s home and stab them to death. And finally there was Xic ("Wing") and Patan ("Packstrap"), who made people cough up blood and suffer while walking on a road.

In addition to the 12 Lords of Xibalba, there were numerous residents there who fallen under the dominion of a Lord and sometimes were obliged to return to the surface of the Earth to help the Lords carry out their trickery and suffering.

Vessel depicting deities in the court of Xibalba

Vessel depicting deities in the court of Xibalba. (Public Domain)

Needless to say, with such a well-formulated pantheon of demons, the Maya were very concerned with appeasing the inhabitants of Xibalba. The temple of the Chichen Itza is believed to have been a means to facilitate sacrificial offerings to the gods, including human sacrifices.

When the cenote beneath the Pyramid of Kukulkan was dredged, a whole manner of objects were found, including wooden objects (preserved by the water), tools, and idols, as well as a large selection of jewelry and precious metals such as gold, silver, copper, and most of all, jade. A lot of the objects appear to have been intentionally broken before being thrown into the cenote below, perhaps suggesting a ‘killing’ of the object that was to be sacrificed to the gods of death.

Excavations have also revealed many human bones that show wounds indicating human sacrifice. The corpses are of men, women, and children, with many of the younger victims being male.

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza. (jkraft5 /Adobe Stock)

One popular theory as to why the Maya civilization collapsed is that a long-lasting draught afflicted the Yucatan Peninsula. This could have led to an uptick in the number and value of sacrifices as citizens desperately begged the gods to restore their life-giving ground water.

The Growing Cenote Could Cause the Pyramid of Kukulkan to Collapse

New studies reveal that the cenote may, in fact, be growing in size as its limestone walls slowly disintegrate. Archaeologists worry that the Pyramid of Kukulkan could collapse into the cavern below if the limestone floor it is built upon weakens further. Currently, that crucial platform is only 16 feet (5m) thick.

“Such structures change over time, because the water washed off the walls and the cavity may be increasing,” said Dr. Rene Chavez Segura, a geologist with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, noting the running water of the underground cenote network and the high humidity in the cavern. “At some point, if the thickness of the rock below the pyramid is thinned, there could be a problem of stability and El Castillo will collapse.” However, Dr. Segura adds that this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Cenote Dzitnup near Valladolid, Mexico. (Jose Ignacio Soto /Adobe Stock)

Discover more about the ancient Maya civilization HERE, in the July/August, 2020 AO Magazine Issue.

Top Image: Ik-Kil cenote, Chichen Itza, Mexico. Source: Subbotina Anna /Adobe Stock

By Kerry Sullivan

Updated on October 2, 2020.


Atlas Obscura. "Pyramid of Kukulcan at Chich'en Itza."  Atlas Obscura. Atlas Obscura, 2016. Web. 13 Aug. 2016.

Gray, Richard. "'Sacred Sinkhole' Discovered under 1,000-year-old Mayan Temple... and It May Eventually Destroy the Pyramid."  Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 17 Aug. 2015. Web. 13 Aug. 2016.

Kempner, Alan. "Trip Report: Diving the Sacred Cenotes of Yucatan."  Trip Report: Diving the Sacred Cenotes of Yucatan. Book Your Dive, 5 May 2013. Web. 13 Aug. 2016.



Hello Kerry,

Wow, up until my current Study of the Bible Book's Enoch and Jubilees I would of thought that they were simply Mayan Myth's now because of these Bible Books I'm reading I can't call them Myth's anymore.

I found the mentioning of Twelve Lord's intriguing which is causing me to wonder what is it with the number 12?

In The Bible 12 Tribes of Israel
In The New Testament 12 Apostles
In Greco-Roman Stories 12 Olympians
Now the Mayans have 12 Lord's?
Do the Aztecs have 12 Lord's or do the Aztecs share a common belief in these 12 Lord's?

Then there's the point in your article where names of Demons are provided.

That point actually confirms both Enoch and Jubilees about Demons and Evil-Spirits.

See in Enoch after 200 Fallen Angel's Sin against God they up and marry human women and had Children. This action was not approved by God so He punished these Angel's by having them bound in chains cast into Tartarus which is Hell Not of Earth by the way but in The Vastness of Space, there they will remain until Judgment Day.

As for those Angels children due to their Sins that the children continued to commit against God towards Humanity; God had them changed into Evil-Spirits.

This was at the heart of their nature their oppressive characters they were tyrannical towards the Human Race, oppressive, persecuted People senseless killings that were unjustified and they were Cannibals.

Since their mothers came from Cain's Bloodline that makes sense Cannibals is most likely how they were identified as Tribe in The Days before The Great Flood.

In The Bible Book Jubilees an Angel explains that after The Great Flood there was much Chaos in the Earth because of these Evil-Spirits. Remember they are the children of those Fallen Angel's.

The chaos was so bad because of those Evil-Spirits that Lucifer requested of God look this can't go on like this, surrender 10 of the Evil-Spirits too Me and all the rest of them send them to Hell.

God granted Lucifers petition he received 10 Evil-Spirits the rest got sent too Hell. So you're probably wondering okay how does this what's made known in Jubilees confirming anything?

It's the 12 Lord's identified as Demons the children of those Watcher Angels had abilities right up even unto The Great Flood still and their natures how God describes them in Enoch shows their characters what their truly like.

Lucifer was calculating through his request too God He picked out the 10 he wanted that He could control the others He asked God too send them too Hell because He could not control them.

By the very description of these 12 Lord's what they did to humanity is reflected in their on-going vile nature.

It would explain the whole Human Sacrifice and the Removing of a victims heart while alive those children of the really Bad Angel's had and enormous bloodlust this would satisfy them greatly when this ritual was done.

The last thing I'm going to mention in this article is the sink holes possibly created by meteorites?

I do remember watching a documentary on The Americas Before Columbus some Indigenous Tribes through Oral History testified that their ancestors got to this land from Under the Earth they came here to the Americas Up from the Caves.

I admit at the time I heard that I didn't really take it at face value but, then two things happen I watched an Unsolved Mysteries episode and currently I'm watching re-runs of this show and they mentioned about People who lived in Las Vegas before the casinos there was a huge cavern where water flowed from it was directly under Vegas in The Earth but earlier stories that were shared is that the people emerged from The Cave that was why they knew where the Water was Under the Earth again I saw this on an Episode of Unsolved Mysteries.

The point of this segment is that a white family attempted to lay claim to a spot that they believed the Water to be located through Satellite infra something there was and indication of a body of Water in deed a few miles deep under the Earth in Las Vegas.

What's my point?

Suppose the people in The America's did come up from The Caves which are now Sink holes with water in them.

I think that when the opportunity came for The People here in The America's to leave These underground Caves they did.

Then some change or another took place geological and astronomical to those areas where The People did in fact emerged now they are a system of Underwater Caves.

To me that's incredible.

Okay, thank you Kerry for sharing your article; it was very exciting to read very thought provoking so until, next time, Goodbye! Oh and I'm looking forward to reading more of your article's.

Wow, mostly underground rivers and none above? I find that insanely interesting. They theorized that these caverns and underworlds were from the result of the meteor but there are other speculations that might fit. I think it's more related to volcanic activity of some sort. What is it with these sinkhole type formations in that region? Isn't there an island in the caribbean that is dotted with these types of sinkholes? They might possibly also be alien motherships drilling and extracting for precious metals.

These taverns are not so secret if you're a local. In fact, these taverns and water holes are renown for their alleged healing properties. Believers travel long distances to visit them.

That the caverns were the result of the same meteor explosion that killed off the dinosaurs was an interesting surprise.

Kerry Sullivan's picture

Kerry Sullivan

Kerry Sullivan has a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts and is currently a freelance writer, completing assignments on historical, religious, and political topics.

Next article